Animal Rights

Residents of a Tiny Wisconsin Town Gather Every Year to Watch Chickens Being Hurled Through the Air

Events like these, which children attend, desensitize people to animal cruelty.

In Dunn County, Wisconsin, the Ridgeland “chicken toss” is one tiny northern town’s version of the Winter Olympics. Each year in February, the Drunk’n Monkey Bar & Hotel invites Ridgeland residents to watch chickens being thrown, one or two at a time, up in the air from the roof in honor of Pioneer Days.

Crowds in this town of fewer than 300 people scramble to grab the birds as they fall. The chickens huddle together in crates in freezing temperatures awaiting their turn as each frightened bird is tossed in the air. 

In 2006, about 50 chickens, mostly roosters, were thrown to meet “varied fates,” according to the Dunn County News, on February 26 that year. This year, the Alliance for Animals, in Madison, Wisconsin, says over 200 chickens will be tossed in the 35-year-old tradition.

Although Wisconsin Crimes Against Animals statute 951.02 states that “No person may treat any animal, whether belonging to the person or another, in a cruel manner,” the Dunn County Sheriff’s office says the chicken toss does not meet the statutory requirements for cruelty in Wisconsin at this time and claims that stress to the birds cannot be measured.

In a phone call to me on February 2, Dunn County Deputy Adam Zukowski said his office would "monitor" the chicken toss and "take action” if any birds appeared to be injured.

Defenders of the event claim chickens can fly, so tossing them into the air from a roof is not a big deal. However, chickens are not long-distance flyers, and their short-distance flying abilities vary considerably. Even if they could fly well, a chicken being pulled from a crate and thrown off a building into the arms of a screaming mob is different from a chicken fluttering to the ground from a perch in a quiet place.

But facts and feelings fall on deaf ears. Dunn County District Attorney Jim Peterson told animal law attorney Anne Daugherty-Leiter, in February 2006, that an 8-foot drop for a chicken "would be like stepping off a curb for a person," and "it is not uncommon for chickens to be chased as part of the harvesting process." Thus, in his opinion, there is no “mistreatment." At least one Ridgeland resident disagreed. That same month, I spoke with Dr. Albert Horvath of the Ridgeland Veterinary Clinic. He said he had seen three or four chicken drops in the past and had heard that at least one chicken broke a leg one year. He believes the chickens experience fear and anxiety.

Dr. Horvath also told me that, in a way, the chickens used in the chicken toss are the "lucky chickens,” because their farm life is typically so bad that the chicken drop could enable some chickens to find “good homes.”

However, his description of 32 years of veterinary practice specializing in dairy cows and other farmed animals did not bode well for chickens in Ridgeland.

Entertainments like chicken drops and turkey drops persist in parts of rural America as remnants of old European recreations including cock-throwing, bull-running, badger-baiting and other animal-abusing activities. Cruelest of all “drops” in the U.S. is the annual diversion of dropping live turkeys from an airplane each October in Yellville, Arkansas. Though virtually everyone, even the National Enquirer, has condemned this event for decades, it still goes on. Like rodeos, these types of entertainment are rooted in attitudes and practices that clash with the notion that animal farming nurtures humane regard and respect for animal life.

An example is Collinsville, Alabama, where between 1912 and the 1930s, residents chased chickens, turkeys, ducks, geese, and guinea fowl through the streets with brooms and other implements the day before Thanksgiving. According to a 1985 article in the Alabama Review ("Turkey Trot Days at Oliver Hall’s Store," pp. 105-118), the birds were also forced to plunge from a 25-foot tall roof by a man cracking a buggy whip and prodding those who hesitated with a pole to leap into “a frantic crush of people with outstretched arms.”

In the early 1990s, I attended the International Chicken Flying Meet at the annual Bob Evans Farm Festival in October in Rio Grande, Ohio. It consisted of "launching" 100 or more chickens, one by one, from a 10-foot high mailbox by a man wielding a toilet plunger as part of a "rural heritage" that Bob Evans Farm incredibly equated with a "respect for all animals."

While Bob Evans Farm insisted during our three-year campaign that this meet, dating from 1971, would never end, in 1994, it apparently did. Our campaign, "Clean Fun, Yes—Mean Fun, No," led the company to survey festivalgoers and discover that many found the Chicken Flying Meet to be inhumane and dull.

It is very distressing to see children at these events being taught to enjoy mistreating animals, yet desensitizing the young is part of the purpose. Knowing that many Bob Evans Farm Festival attendees were people of faith, we argued that even if they believed the creator gave humanity “dominion” over other life, surely a loving god did not authorize us to degrade and insult the other creatures of the earth, any more than parents are authorized to bully and belittle their children. Our Chicken-Flying Contests brochure includes a section on What Can Be Done Instead.

This year, one of our members wrote to Wisconsin officials:

"I grew up in Montana, where pioneer times were not long ago; I live in North Carolina, where the unsavory history of Jim Crow laws and attitudes still resonate. Please help persuade Ridgeland to forgo the chicken and pig events at the upcoming Pioneer Days. Log events and silver dollar hunts are excellent ways to remember heritage. Taking advantage of and potentially harming animals are not. Human amusement does not require and does not justify treating fellow creatures with such disrespect."

Please contact Wisconsin officials to voice your objection to the cruel Ridgeland chicken toss, which takes place in mid-February. Here are their names and phone numbers.

Karen Davis is the president and founder of United Poultry Concerns, a nonprofit organization that promotes the compassionate treatment of domestic fowl. She is the author, most recently, of Prisoned Chickens, Poisoned Eggs: An Inside Look at the Modern Poultry Industry.

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